No Kaipo, Noa Problem

Without the field general who won at Notre Dame and rang up 74 points at North Texas, the Navy Midshipmen--losers of three home games in 2007--could have sweated bullets at home against Northern Illinois.

Would the defense hold up this time? Could backup quarterback Jarod Bryant fill in capably? Would Paul Johnson's rushing attack still hum and purr? Would the upset bug catch this team the way it did against Ball State and Delaware? These and other nervous questions went through the minds of Navy fans this week, and they might have flowed through the cranial regions of Navy players and coaches as well. Football is a sport where grown adults with headsets have been known to worry, so with everything swirling around the Milestone Midshipmen before kickoff, some anxiety was understandable.

Sixty minutes later, however, those worries proved to be completely unfounded.

Navy's defense allowed just 355 yards, one week after hemorraging to the tune of 635 yards against North Texas. The young men charged with defending the checkerboard end zone at Memorial Stadium performed with sustained intensity and passion. Intent on sending a statement, Navy's defense wouldn't even allow the Huskies to score a garbage touchdown in the final minute of play, when the ultimate outcome had already been decided. From start to finish, a beleaguered defense proudly reasserted itself by spilling its tank. Every onlooker in Annapolis had to beam with approval at the sight of this "rally 'round the flag" performance from an inspired group that has toiled in the shadows for so much of this season.

Right behind Navy's defense on today's list of heroes stood Bryant, a little quarterback who made another big impression on his teammates and, for that matter, a critical ballgame.

Back on Sept. 22 against Duke, Bryant stepped in for Kaipo and led Navy to 14 fourth-quarter points in a come-from-behind victory. After committing a game-deciding turnover in the loss to Ball State on Sept. 15, Bryant bounced right back and showed his teammates that he was made of sterner stuff. This past Saturday against Northern Illinois, however, Bryant would have to lead the Milestone Midshipmen for a full game, but the enormity of the occasion didn't faze the kid in the least.

Smaller than Kaipo in stature, but evidently just as big a performer in the crucible of crunch-time competition, Bryant presided over another typically productive day for Navy's ground game. The Milestone Midshipmen racked up 359 rushing yards and scored when they really needed to. Bryant--a slashing and slippery runner who hides behind blockers and his hard to bring down--performed well throughout this contest. He set a tone for the Johnson Boys whenever they needed a lift against their opponents from the Mid-American Conference.

After Northern Illinois grabbed an early 7-0 lead, Bryant immediately answered with a touchdown drive that knotted the score at 7-all and transferred momentum to the Navy sideline. Coming out of the locker room after halftime, Bryant established a fresh sense of confidence for his team by leading Navy's offense to yet another touchdown and a 28-14 lead. And when the Huskies responded to narrow Navy's advantage to a tenuous four points early in the fourth quarter, Bryant answered the bell and put his foot down. With the game's outcome hanging in the balance, the Milestone Midshipmen--under the guidance of their little big man--marched downfield for seven more points. Jarod Bryant wasn't just great on an absolute scale (though he most certainly was); he was great precisely when he and his teammates needed his excellence the most.

When searching for an early boost, a midgame affirmation of confidence, or a crucial late-game score, Paul Johnson was able to turn to Jarod Bryant and find results. On a day when Kaipo handed the car keys to Bryant, Navy's Ferrari of an offense continued to roar the way everyone in Annapolis expects it to. Today's resourceful triumph--which secures a winning season for the Milestone Midshipmen and fulfills a central team goal--will stand as the greatest testament to this ballclub's ability to do whatever it takes for a coach who always seems to find answers to perplexing problems.

The Notre Dame win was legendary and electrifying.

The North Texas track meet was statistically historic and deliriously entertaining.

Saturday's victory against Northern Illinois, however, might just be the game that defines the Milestone Midshipmen as the team that found a way to prevail in spite of every imaginable obstacle. When you think about it, that's exactly what Jarod Bryant and the rest of these Annapolis men have managed to do all season long.

Army looms next, but for this one week, while Navy rests up and enjoys Thanksgiving as a community, the Milestone Midshipmen should allow themselves to savor a victory and a winning season built on the backs of some incredibly gritty and resilient football players.


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